When 2021 ends, there will have been two big budget action films financed by American money that feature Asian leads. Obviously time will tell whether or not Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins or Shang Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings stand the test of time and make that all important dollar, but until then it’s worth taking a look as a previous attempt from Hollywood to translate asian culture to western audiences with 47 Ronin.
Telling the real life story of the titular number of masterless samurai who banded together to avenge the death of their master at the duplicitous hands of his rival, the filmmakers decided to go the 300 route by turning the famous Japanese legend into a fantasy universe populated by witches, giants and… Keanu Reeves?
It’s 18th century Japan and we’re introduced to Kai, a half Japanese, half English outcast who was adopted by the benevolent Lord Naganori who has since fallen in love with Mika, the lord’s daughter despite putting up with some abysmal treatment from virtually everybody else.
Preparing for a visit from the Shogun, Naganori has an audience with the Shogun’s master of ceremonies, Lord Kira, who plans to take the kingdom for himself with the aid of some underhanded tricks and an honest to God Witch under his employ. After an early assassination attempt during a hunting trip is inadvertently thwarted by Kai, Kira steps his game up several notches and unleashes a hugely complicated ploy that results in a bewitched Naganori attacking Kira and having to commit ritual seppuku in an attempt to keep the honor for his house.
As a result, the forty seven samurai under Naganori, including boss man Oishi, are branded ronin and sent away in disgrace while Mika gets a year to mourn her father before being forced into marriage with Kira, but Oushi being the smart man that he is has deduced the lord’s treachery and after reuniting with his family, decides to put a plan in motion to gather together his banished men and bring honor back to his master’s name thanks to the judicial use of very sharp swords.
However, before he can do this he must first track down Kei who has been sold into slavery and is currently finding employment by fighting misshapen giants to the death in gladiatorial battle for the amusement of the Dutch. Securing Kei’s release is instrumental as he has knowledge of the arcane due to him growing up on a mysterious island rich with sorcery and a return to that place could get them special weapons that could give them the edge that they need.
So the men lock swords with the soldiers of warlords and mythical beasts in honor to bring order back to their kingdom and justice to their enemy, but any victory is sure to be bittersweet as the reward for success doesn’t exactly mean dying old surrounded by chubby grandchildren…
From purely a stylistic point of view, 47 Ronin proves to be exceptionally easy on the eyes. The costumes, sets and creatures (for the most part) are all exquisitely rendered and look really bloody expensive, but it’s painfully evident the second it starts with it’s gravelly voice over rushing to fill in the gaps that we’re in for another limp, CGI saturated fantasy movie that tries to merge the fantastical with ancient times. However, what you’re quite unprepared for is how deathly dull the whole thing is which is quite a feat considering the flick boasts Reeves fighting a range of funky creatures despite keeping a Jon Snow-esque look of pained vulnerability/confusion bolted to his face at all times. It doesn’t help that beyond the typical act of macho stoicism, virtually every character has nothing to distinguish their personalities from one another which sort of makes them as appealing as an all consuming hive mind and of all the ronin, only about four stand out and that’s only because they’re either Keanu Reeves, they’re young, they’re fat, or that you’ve recognized Hiroyuki Sanada as “that bloke from The Wolverine”.
It’s a real shame too, because 47 Ronin really should be lauded for having such a lavish, Asian cast, but then it should get it’s legs slapped immediately after for giving them anything original to do and the film is content just plod along like a bored toddler who’s up way past their bedtime. Not only does fledgling feature director not infuse his talented cast with anything to set them all apart from one another but he has absolutely no talent in building up any tension whatsoever which massively adds to the whole “meh-ness” of it all even though the film keeps insisting of waving pretty effects in front of your face. He doesn’t pay anything off either – what’s the damn point of setting up your villian having a huge, kickass, set of living armour if you’re going to have it get blow up before it can even get stuck into the final battle and what’s the point of having the heroes take a side quest to gain magic swords when they don’t seem to behave that much differently from actual ones?
Having Reeves in the lead makes things admittedly a little awkward, mainly because if you took his character out of the story it wouldn’t necessarily change things much, but at least it’s not as cringingly blatant as Matt Damon saving the Great Wall Of China from alien lizards or Tom Cruise beating alcoholism in order to save Japan, but it does show that the script seems to be uncertain whether or not it’s Asian characters can carry the story.
This is annoying because Hiroyuki Sanada (pretty much taking a similar back seat to Reeves like Ken Watanabe did for Cruise in The Last Samurai despite obviously being the main character) is an actor who rarely pops up in American movies without a kitana blade welded to his fist and really deserves a better shake of things and has far more to offer than to be continually rumbling on about honor.
Flashy and as ultimately pointless as a disco ball during a power cut, 47 Ronin’s final slip up is in it’s eyebrow raisingly downbeat ending which, had the film been crafted far better, would have been utterly devastating, but instead just comes across as needlessly harsh and fairly off putting as it turns you back out into the real world simply feeling odd instead of deeply moved. Spoiler warning: if you’re going to end your film with all the heroes having to commit seppuku to restore honor to their respective houses, you might want to make us care about them in the first place instead of having all of your leads willingly top themselves to create an ending that can be described as silly at best.
A misjudged attempt at tapping Japanese history for cinematic gains, even with their big-ass swords, these former samurai simply just can’t cut it.